There is at least some long-awaited positive news for the Muragappan family who have become the poster example of just how cruelly Australia can respond to those seeking asylum, even when young children are involved.
The family will be settled in Perth – at least temporarily and only within community detention, following an order from Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced on Tuesday morning. They will not be allowed to return to the community in Biloela, in central Queensland – the community where they worked and lived and found a network of supporters, before being suddenly removed during a dawn raid.
As we publish this morning, a charter flight is on its way to collect the Nades and his daughter Kopika, the two remaining members of the family still on Christmas Island, to reunite them with Priya and daughter Tharnicaa, who have been in a Perth Hospital. Hawke said the family would live in suburban Perth via a “community detention placement.” It is not permanent. The placement remains while their legal matters continue, and as Tharnicaa receives continued medical care in hospital.
This is a teeny tiny step forward, something they should offer an ounce of hope to this family and their supporters. It’s one that has been described as “welcome” by the Opposition.
However, Coalition MPs are dreaming if they believe they are anything close to “compassionate” on this issue. That’s what Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack attempted to claim when he yesterday indicated a decision was imminent.
Hawke himself also mentioned the C word, saying that the decision has seen him balance “appropriate compassion” for the family and their young daughters alongside the Morrison’s Government’s “strong border protection policies.”
There is nothing compassionate about this situation, merely a series of crueller and crueller events that escalated to the point that the public perception of what was occurring had been too damaging to go on.
But other matters regarding these Australian born children, and their Sri Lankan born parents who sought refuge in Australia, have been ignored, over and over again.
There’s the fact this family was ripped from the community during a dawn raid. Tharnicaa, the now four year old who has been in a Perth hospital, was still breastfeeding at the time.
There was the accommodation they were given in Melbourne, young children spending unnaturally long stints of time indoors, and later found to have Vitamin D deficiencies.
There’s the fact this family became the only residents of the Christmas Island detention centre – where they live in a tiny cabin (despite the millions of dollars Australian taxpayers spend keeping them there). They have been forced to share a bed. They are regularly checked on by guards for “head counts”. As Priya herself previously explained back in October last year, they don’t have any privacy. Their mental health has been impacted. Their eldest daughter who mercifully has at least been able to attend school, is escorted in doing so by a guard – she can’t attend playdates or school holiday activities or Saturday morning sports. The family’s lawyer has described their living situation as like being in “tin sheds”, far from ideal for an extremely hot part of the country.
That takes us to what’s happened in the past couple of weeks, as then three year old Tharnicaa came down with Pneumonia (she later spent her 4th birthday in the hospital, all of her birthdays have now been spent under the watch of immigration detention). Tharnicaa’s parents had to make requests to access panadol as they held their daughter in their tiny cabin (they are not allowed to keep their own supplies of medicine). When the panadol finally arrived, just one dose was given — so they would need to begin the requests again, as the medication wore off. They were told that the fevers their daughter was experiencing would need to go on for another couple of days before they would be able to access the additional medical care they needed.
As any parent knows, seeing a young child suffering from a fever for 10 minutes is concerning (and would result in a child being sent home from formalised care). Seeing a child suffer fevers for hours is scary. But for such fevers to go on for days? That’s utterly terrifying. Then imagine being unable to get that child the emergency care you know they need — and imagine not being able to readily reach into the medicine cabinet to give a dose of the panadol that is typically a first option to bring such fevers down.
A spokesperson for the family told The Saturday Paper and the 7am podcast that when they did eventually make it to the Perth hospital the doctors – not knowing who the family were – asked why it had taken the parents so long to bring the sick little girl in.
This family has spent more than 1000 days on Christmas Island. For what purpose? Far from a security risk, this is a family with ties and a life and friends and community readily available to them on the other side of the country. Why has Australia made an example out of this family, why were we so wiling to accept what’s been done?
There’s a very good reason why this family’s plight has been shared widely across international media, including across the British press, the New York Times, the Washington Post. The situation is gobsmackingly cruel and disturbing.
There is nothing compassionate about this situation. Nothing compassionate about Attorney General Michaela Cash saying we can not “blink” on this issue, nor in Karen Andrews’ lack of meaningful response as she stepped into the Home Affairs portfolio, as we optimistically hoped she might have been able to achieve. There’s been nothing compassionate about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s relative silence on the issue — particularly that he couldn’t at least see this family’s plight “as the father of girls”, as he has declared has changed his perspective on other matters. There is nothing compassionate about the MPs who have said, when asked questions about this family’s plight, that they don’t “know enough about the details”.
There is nothing compassionate about releasing the family into Perth-based community detention – into an entirely new world and community, while leaving them in continued limbo, and while refusing a different option for them to return to the community they love, and the community that loves them. The Coalition doesn’t want to signal a “victory” here. No Biloela reunion pictures, thank you.
And of course, this family’s story is just one story. There are still 1483 people in closed immigration detention, according to March 2021 figures by the Refugee Council. Offshore, there are 125 people in Papua New Guinea, 108 on Nauru.
There is no such thing as “appopriate compassion”. There is compassion, that’s it. And this Coalition Government has proved over and over again that they simply do not have it.